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From an Egyptian Tomb to a T-Shirt: A History of William the Hippo

Described as “the friendliest thing in the world” by the man who named him, The Met’s famous Egyptian faience sculpture, William the Hippo, is not-so-secretly a symbol of chaos, whose existence is inextricably tied to literal matters of life and death.

William the Hippo” is a beloved, unofficial mascot for the Museum, appearing in The Met Store on our t-shirtsstaplers, and more. His faience–a self-glazing quartz–body is a pleasing, placid color and his face seems to sport a wry facial expression with heavy-lidded eyes and a smile. And he’s a familiar shape: the hippopotamus is one of the most beloved animals at the zoo, memorable and easy to identify for all ages.

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However, William’s life before the Museum is wrought with danger and destruction. For that matter, even if it is rotund, the hippopotamus itself is the deadliest big animal in Africa, and it has been since the time when William was made, some 3,800 years ago, during what we now call the Middle Kingdom.

Back then, Egyptian life revolved around the Nile, home of the “river horse,” the scourge of the ancient Egyptian fisherman.

Look at it this way: lions, the so-called “kings of the jungle,” are said to only have to worry about crocodiles (and humans). And crocodiles? Their biggest threat is the hippo—nd hippos don’t even eat meat! But they do have 20-inch canines inside massive, powerful jaws, and can—improbable as it may sound—run 20 miles per hour. If they have one weakness, it’s that they can’t jump. 

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William was discovered in a tomb at Meir in Upper Egypt in 1910. If you look at him closely, you can see that one of his legs is not like the others. This is because three of his legs had to be remade. When he was placed inside the tomb, William’s limbs were deliberately broken. Faience hippos are found in tombs in this state with some regularity. Egyptologists think this ritual was done to render the hippo harmless to the deceased, as ancient Egyptians believed that the totems placed in tombs came alive in the afterlife. Hippos were so dangerous in ancient Egypt’s river-centered way of life that even in death, you couldn’t be too careful. These animals were also symbols of power and protection, though, so you wouldn’t want to leave them out.

Edward S. Harkness, a trustee of the Museum, donated the faience sculpture to The Met in 1917. While the Museum’s scholars knew that the statue was a funerary object, it was also pretty charming. Soon, the Museum began selling prints featuring the hippo. In 1931, a British author named Capt. H. M. Raleigh visited The Met, and wrote a funny article for Punch magazine wherein he dubbed the hippo “William.” The name stuck.

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Over the years, William has gotten some company, as other faience hippos have been found and added to the Museum’s collection—and for a while in the ‘80s, some of them joined William in The Met Store.

Lately, William has had the shop to himself, and his likeness is available as a magneta plush, or even as a statue you can take home. All four of the legs are intact in our reproductions because, despite what you’ll hear about hippopotamuses in the wild, this one is well behaved.

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